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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

In Your Health today, we'll focus on a food ingredient that makes your bread less crumbly. It also makes your pizza dough stretchy. And yet many foods now proudly advertise they do not include that ingredient - gluten.

NPR's Allison Aubrey examines why.

ALLISON AUBREY: Joe Hotchkiss teaches food science at Cornell University, and he's also a pro at making pizza dough. He loves gluten - the more, the better. He needs it for his baking. Today, he's brought a little dough into our studio.

Professor JOE HOTCHKISS (Food Science, Cornell University): Well, the first thing we got to do is stretch it out, push it together, fold it over. And the more we do that, the more it's going to have the texture that we want in our pizza dough. And the kind of texture, the kind of pizza I like is a strong, chewy kind of dough.

AUBREY: As he works the dough with his hands, Hotchkiss says it's the gluten that helps create that chewyness. All wheat has gluten. It's the protein part of the plant.

Prof. HOTCHKISS: We're really doing chemistry here.

AUBREY: Making the dough more elastic so the bread is hardier. Hotchkiss says it's no wonder that gluten is added to so many items, from cereals to ketchups and ice creams. It has a chewing gum-like consistency which can hold ingredients together. To demonstrate, Hotchkiss flings his dough into the air like an Italian baker.

Prof. HOTCHKISS: There it goes. That's good. Great pizza - spins around, stretches out, and it's smooth. So I'm beginning to get hungry here.

AUBREY: Nothing is more inviting than that smell of baking bread. Hotchkiss says he loves the taste, and he can't imagine why anyone would choose to eliminate wheat from their diet - unless they had an allergy to wheat protein, and that's less than one percent of the population.

Prof. HOTCHKISS: For the average person that is not sensitive to this particular protein, there's no reason to avoid it.

AUBREY: Wheat has been cultivated for thousands of years, and it's a staple of the American diet. But evolving ideas about nutrition means more people are experimenting with wheat-free diets.

Whole Foods Markets now carry over a thousand gluten-free items, including a freezer full of baked goods that are made with alternative ingredients such as rice and bean flours.

Ms. SARAH KENNEY (Marketing Director, Whole Foods Market): Here we're looking at some scones. We've got cookies, pies.

AUBREY: Sarah Kenney, who directs marketing for the grocery chain, says customers now come in asking for these gluten-free products. She says the demand first came from people who have Celiac Disease, an autoimmune condition which requires eliminating wheat. But lately, Kenney says, there's a segment of shoppers who are just curious.

Ms. KENNEY: We've seen a growing trend of customers being more ingredient-centric, as we would say. They're looking to eliminate certain ingredients.

AUBREY: When something like oat bran or sugar comes into the spotlight, these single-issue eaters build their diets around getting as much of the ingredient as possible or avoiding it completely. This may be part of what's happening with gluten now.

Dr. LEO TREYZON (Specialist, Gastrointestinal Disorders, UCLA): It's rather interesting that the whole Celiac Disease problem has created a Celiac fad diet.

AUBREY: Leo Treyzon is a physician specializing in gastrointestinal disorders at UCLA. He says it's estimated that a little less than one percent of Americans have or will develop Celiac Disease - a serious irritation and inflammation of the gut. For those people, avoiding gluten is not a fad. It actually stops the disease.

But Treyzon says a lot of other people are diagnosing themselves with gluten intolerance. And they don't have any diagnosed disease. Some report less bloating or stomach cramps on a wheat-free diet.

Dr. TREYZON: If they feel better when they don't induce gluten, there is no absolute harm, and certainly and benefiting for doing that.

AUBREY: The practical challenge for anyone trying a gluten-free diet is that it's tough to avoid if you eat out in restaurants or buy processed foods without reading the labels. Gluten is even added as a binder in some prescription drugs and vitamins.

Recent headlines over contaminated gluten in pet food shows the broad reach of the ingredient.

Whole Foods shopper Garrett Kraus of McLean, Virginia says he put his cats on a homemade meat and fish diet because of the contamination scare.

Mr. GARRETT KRAUS (McLean, Virginia): Oh, they loved it - chicken, tuna, salmon - pretty much whatever they wanted.

AUBREY: As he grabs a freshly baked whole-wheat roll for breakfast, he says he's a little concerned about contamination in human food, particularly in processed food that contains gluten imported from China. But he figures the risk isn't that significant.

Mr. KRAUS: I don't think that if it is a problem that is that big, that it would actually kill or really injure people.

AUBREY: The FDA says he's right not to worry. The ongoing investigations show that contaminated gluten has made its way into some feed for animals, fish and poultry. But the amounts are so diluted, FDA officials say there's very little risk to humans.

Cornell's Joe Hotchkiss says the pet-food case may raise awareness of the need for inspections. But he says there's no need to fear gluten. It's not a dietary villain for most of us.

Prof. HOTCHKISS: I think the old nutrition advice is still the best advice. And that is eat a lot of nothing, but a little bit of everything.

AUBREY: And when it comes to pizza, Hotchkiss says he likes it best topped with anchovies and fresh mozzarella.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can get some help deciphering food-warning labels at npr.org.

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